My friends and I often joke that we are grateful that social media didn’t exist during our teen years, that we are ever grateful no one had a camera at the ready during our college exploits. We laugh and nod and not so secretly know we are telling a deep truth. Whew, we got by with some stuff, didn’t we? We worry for those who are coming of age in a society that documents and publishes everything. Now that we are older, wiser, calmed down and less prone to public drunkenness, we breathe many sighs of relief. And still we speak judgement on those who are now getting their comeuppance, on those who have some power or notoriety and have their sins or folly or one poor judgement exposed for all the world to see. Where is the grace, when does that enter into the discussion, how do we decide to offer that life-changing gift to others? How does one cross the bridge from exposed sinner to forgiven saint?
Grace, redemption, restoration. These concepts often feel so far away, meant for others, out of my reach. Other times I glow with the knowledge that I am included in the forgiven club, that I truly get a fresh start. What is the difference between a forgiven day and a shaming one? Mostly I find that when I let outsiders define me, people who don’t know me and want to dig up salacious history or repeat gossip, who need to feel righteous…those are shaming days when the reminder that I am made new again in Jesus gets lost in the noise. Then begins the slow crawl back to grace, shutting out the whispers and innuendos, listening more intentionally to the nudge of the Holy Spirit that says I am more than my past, yesterday is over. Choosing to focus on the thread that pulls me closer to God is ever challenging but maybe more so in the greater culture of #metoo and the publicizing of old yearbook pictures and long forgotten emails. I am left with the question of who deserves forgiveness, who gets a second chance?
Accountability. I think it all rests in accountability. Confession of sins plays a critical role in the forgiveness equation, at least for me. What hides in darkness is scary, powerful, soul-crushing and only loses steam and the ability to hurt when it is brought into the Light. For many years, I hid, I avoided relationships and feared exposure of my past. Meeting each overture of friendship with dread, distrust, desperation, I stayed home, stayed quiet, stayed alone. Anyone who continued to push, asked for lunch dates or invited me into their club, ministry, children’s play group mom gatherings brought anxiety and a long discussion with Chef. Dare I risk connecting with her? What if she finds out? How long before they find out that I carry a monster label and they back away, judge, begin whispering? No, better to be safe and not invest in a friendship, not pour any effort into building a program or sharing my gifts only to have the inevitable phone call that says thank you but no, the email that says my help is no longer needed, the summons into the manger’s office telling me it is over. This is shame, this is the darkness. I built a castle, a fortress for one, that kept the outside away and while it was a new prison, I was at least in control of who crossed the moat.
Two significant events began to open my eyes to living into grace instead of shame. I can’t remember which came first, but together they offered me a hand across the bridge and both involved accountability and Light. A trusted neighbor who knew my story began to spread gossip and judgement about me to others on the street. Why he would do that is still many years later a question I cannot answer. Yet his behavior gave me the opportunity to face a shame, to question and confront an accuser. I faced him and stepped into the light. I felt my shame melt away, the weight of secrecy and worry lifted by using my own voice to say, “You know me, I am more than my past and a label and I have given you the story before I accepted your friendship.” I sought accountability for both of us, only one walked away with the Light that night, a glow that dims sometimes but has never been fully extinguished. I lost a friendship but gained myself.
A conversation with a trusted pastor, a man who spoke many truths to me, was the other awakening I needed, the encouragement to leave the safety of my prison. When I shared with him that a now highly trusted friend had invited me to lunch, began pursuing a friendship with me, and she had small children and I wanted to spare her the high cost of a relationship with me, that I had finally succumbed to her advances by sitting on the patio in the bright sunlight for a lunch I couldn’t eat and listed out for her all the reasons she shouldn’t be friends with me, he didn’t congratulate me on my honesty or thank me for keeping the reputation of others intact, he didn’t high five me for choosing to quarantine myself lest others catch the virus of my sinful reputation. No, he was appalled that I would begin every conversation that way, that I wouldn’t trust others to forgive and that I had such little faith in their genuine delight in getting to know me. What? WHAT?!! No, he said, stop it. Just stop it. Who else begins a relationship with a recounting of their past, he asked me. “Lisa, accept the grace that is being offered to you.” He guided me across the bridge into a relationship with the One who had already forgiven me, who wanted to rejoice in my redemption. Life changed after that talk with my pastor.
So what can these experiences teach me about the current climate of outing old emails and yearbook pictures and stupid teenage choices? My constant companion of old, anxiety of being exposed, tries to squash me to this day. I avoid the spotlight but hear the Holy Spirit reminding me there is no glory in rejecting the gifts I have been given. For the record, I am not saying that there are no consequences for wearing blackface or pretending to grab a woman’s breast. But can one event tell our entire story? Is that one photo a true indication of our character? No, I think that grace accepted for our own secrets requires us to offer it to others, to make space for apologies and seek out evidence of atonement as well. Owning my history and poor choices and devastating decisions, I am free to cross the bridge into grace. The price of that grace though is the demand that I look back not into my own past but to those who desire assistance to get to the crossing.
My advice to those who have covered their painful pasts, who fear the exposure that a Google search could bring, I say own it. No, don’t begin every conversation with your sin list but yes, say it happened and express the remorse that precedes grace. The truth is we have all done hurtful things, we all were young and dumb and self-centered. Many of us ruminate on choices made during school years, on the mistakes we made parenting or the ways we have taken our spouses for granted. Getting stuck in shame robs us though of the healing that comes with accountability and claiming our status as a child of God. Then live each day as if we have another chance to get it right, make each choice better than the last one, look to the vulnerable people and hear their pain and then do what we can to stop the cycle of shame.
I was heartbroken when another favorite actor was exposed as a sexual predator, when a politician I admired was found to have no respect for women, when a beloved celebrity appeared in disgusting pictures that we know today are offensive and perpetuate injustice. With each new headline, I wonder why, why didn’t this person get out in front of it and tell us all that they made choices yesterday that they have spent many todays atoning for? The new ministry at church that is healing my heart is bringing us into relationship with those in the community that have been incarcerated. As we strive to convince them that they are more than their last bad decision, they are greater than the Department of Corrections number that follows their name, that they are deserving of a second and third and fourth chance, I recognize that this is a hard sell when we are taking down others with our phones locked in video mode. We revel in righteousness every time a person of the opposing political party makes the news for a 40 year old decision. Instead, let us ask if this person would make the same choice today? Has this public figure or now-public figure behaved consistently to display a contrite heart?
I get lost in the space between seeking accountability for victims of injustice and offering grace to other sinners like me. I can’t find any easy path forward beyond continuing to cross the bridge into forgiveness and handing our grace like candy. We all want to be heard and validated in our pain, to believe our experiences are unique. The truth is that we all hurt others and are hurt. Some of us stop there, get stuck there and hoard forgiveness as if it is ours to dole out. Today I am grateful for a pastor who told me otherwise, for friends who have persisted in relationship with me, for a new 24 hours to get it right. You have your own new day, will you join me in seeking the best in others and allowing the worst to pass without our amplification? Join me as I cross again into grace, where the Light is warm and bright and available to all.